A Racial Crime - James Earl Ray and the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr

Shortly after the 1998 publication of Gerald Posner’s book, Killing The Dream, internet sites flowered claiming to debunk his conclusion that James Earl Ray was guilty.And following the death of the assassin in April 1998 the King family refused to accept Posner’s anti-conspiracy conclusions and continued to maintain that Ray was a ‘patsy’ at the forefront of a vast conspiracy which included elements of the FBI, CIA, the Mafia and the United States military. In 1998 the King family persuaded President Clinton to reopen the investigation.The ‘limited investigation’ was completed in 2000.Furthermore, the King family took a ‘conspirator’ to court in a civil action which resulted in the December 1999 jury decision that Martin Luther King had indeed been murdered as the result of a conspiracy and during the same period an ex-FBI agent, Donald Wilson, said he had documentary ‘proof’ that conspirators had been involved in King’s death. With these new ‘revelations’ in mind I came to the conclusion there was sufficient reason to write another history of the King murder. As part of my research I accessed the Scotland Yard file on James Earl Ray which was not due for release under the Official Secrets Act until 2008.The file gives an account of Ray’s activities in London following the assassination.And, under a Freedom of Information Act request, I was given copies of the 245 FBI MURKIN (Murder of King) files containing approximately 40,000 pages of memos, airtels and documents related to the FBI investigation. As researchers have discovered, the files are not indexed or compiled in chronological order.It was therefore a painstaking task in reviewing them. But it did result in the unearthing of documents which have never previously been published or fully examined.For the first time, documentary evidence is provided which addresses many intriguing issues in the case. Mel Ayton


The political assassinations of the 1960s have fascinated readers and the general public for over 30 years.Somehow interest in the subject lingers with new publications appearing each year.Mel Ayton has previously written "The JFK Assassination:Dispelling The Myths" (2002) as his contribution to the ver growing literature on the subject.he has also written "Questions of Controversy" (2001), an in-depth study of the Kennedy brothers.To this impressive record, Mr Ayton has now added his new study of the Martin Luther King assassination.

Though a review of the literature on the King assassination reveals far fewer publications than with the John F Kennedy assassination, still, over twenty-five well-publicised books have been published on the subject.As with the Kennedy assassination, the approach to each subject has been polarised; conspiracy or non-conspiracy.This, for many, has been what makes for interesting reading with all the political assassinations of the turbulent era of the 1960’s in the United States.In many cases people love to read murder mysteries.As a result, through the power of self-persuasion or persuasion from others, some have convinced themselves of conspiracies.They will tend to believe only what satisfies their own preconceived notions.

After reading most of the relevant sources on the subject, Mel Ayton, too, faced the dilemma, especially in light of the charges by many of King’s followers that a conspiracy existed.As the years progressed away from the event and toward the twenty-first century, stories began to appear in newspapers and on the television networks revealing ‘new eyewitnesse’ and destroying the credibility of others previously interviewed.Charges were made that James Earl Ray, the accused assassin, was innocent, as he had claimed for years, and that Ray was the victim of a government conspiracy, that military intelligence was involved.The King family accepted the concept of conspiracy to the point of openly acknowledging the innocence of Ray shortly before he died.

What insights does Mel Ayton offer which might shed new light on the assassination? Following on the heels of Gerald Posner’s research,Ayton has further researched the assassination by exploring the new theories and investigations which have emerged since Posner’s "Killing The Dream" appeared in 1998.

Ayton has used the previously-secret Scotland Yard files which reveal Ray’s criminal activities in London.He has also explored FBI memos and peculiarities of the 1999 conspiracy trial, as well as the Justice Department Report of 2000, and has delved into the enigmatic figures of Loyd Jowers and former FBI agent Don Wilson, each of whom added to the "conspiratorial plot".Ayton, too, gives a more descriptive analysis of Ray’s character and personality by using the leading experts in the field of psychopathogy and he explores the possibility of others close to Ray having prior knowledge of the assassination.

With the pendulum swinging back and forth between conspiracy and non-conspiracy in the case, Mel Ayton has done a masterful job in refuting many of the conspiratorial claims by previous authors and has used, when concrete evidence is lacking, deductive reasoning to conclude that James Earl Ray really was the assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr.Whatever your views on the subject Ayton has produced a work that cannot be ignored regarding one of the tragic events of the tragic decade of the 1960s.

       Read an excerpt from A Racial Crime




“No one will make sense of the sixties who sees only the bright side, or who cannot see that side at all.No one will begin to understand John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, their roles and the role of their families in American public life, who does not try to imagine and feel something of what they suffered and learned.”

Harris Wofford


Forty miles west of Knoxville, Tennessee, along Highway 116 in the Cumberland Mountains, is a fortress-like structure with walls standing 14 feet high.In approaching Brushy Mountain Penitentiary I was immediately struck by the way it stands as a grey and ugly building, wrapped in the beauty of the surrounding sloping forest.Guards armed with automatic weapons patrolled the parapets and watchtowers and electric wire ran around the perimeter, without insulation, carrying a lethal charge.


The prison’s structure reflects the reason why it was built - to house some of Tennessee’s most incorrigible criminals, men who had challenged the authority of  prisons in other parts of the state.


The prison is well-positioned. If an inmate were  lucky enough to escape he would have been  be met by an impenetrable wilderness. Very few convicts made the attempt to escape the institution which became a maximum security prison in 1968.Even fewer inmates succeeded. One such escapee was James Earl Ray, who was given a 99-year prison sentence for assassinating Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King. A few months before my visit, in May 1972, Ray had made one of a number of escape attempts from Brushy Mountain but was unsuccessful.  Ray had spent half his life in penal institutions since his first incarceration in the 1950s and he had become an habitual escapee. On this occasion Ray had been caught before he had time to scale the wall. Five years following my visit he was successful and was at large in the Cumberland Mountains living rough for three days before being caught by police officers, prison staff, the local sheriff and teams of tracker dogs.


On that bright Spring day I was picked up by a Brushy Mountain prison correctional officer in the small hamlet of Petros, having journeyed from Knoxville to nearby Oliver Springs the previous day. In 1972 the prison held approximately 350 inmates, black and white, incarcerated together in a racially integrated cell-block system. Surprisingly, Ray was held in Cell block ‘C’ housing 21 other inmates, many of them African-Americans.


At the entrance to the prison I was met by the Deputy Warden Rolland H. Cisson, who took me to his office to discuss the institution. Later, I met the Warden, Lewis Tollet. During our discussion James Earl Ray passed by the windowed office and Cisson commented about their ‘star’ prisoner. ‘No trouble at all’, he said, ‘keeps himself to himself, works on his case in the prison law library and carries out his job with no trouble.’ Ray’s isolated world consisted of rising at 5.30 a.m. spending eight hours a day as a ‘block man’ sweeping and mopping the place, with a brief break in the prison gym.At 5p.m. he was locked up, spending most of his time over his typewriter churning out legal memos to his lawyers hoping for a retrial.

Following our discussion Cisson afforded me a tour of the prison and we eventually arrived at cell block ‘C’. Ray was  at the far end of the block in the recreational  area outside the cells, pacing backwards and forwards, his head down, lost in his thoughts. ‘Why is the man who killed one of America’s greatest leaders of the 1960s held in a cell block which would leave him vulnerable to assassination?’, I asked. Rolland Cisson was very forthcoming in his reply. He said that although his fellow inmates had been screened to ascertain those who might have been a threat to Ray, ’Blacks in the United States believe King was killed as the result of a conspiracy and even if they believe Ray had actually pulled the trigger, if  King had been killed for reasons other than racial, - money for example -  it was ok.’ Cisson’s words were to prove premature, however. In 1981, whilst working in the prison law library four African -American inmates attacked Ray, leaving him with twenty-two stab wounds. Ray survived the attack.



More than thirty-five years later the truth about the King assassination is still unclear for the majority of the American people. In fact doubts about Ray as a ‘lone assassin’ arose almost immediately after Martin Luther King was fatally shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in the southern city of Memphis.


From the start, during King’s funeral, his aides voiced suspicions that a conspiracy was responsible for their leader’s death. Following Ray’s quick plea of guilty during his 1969 trial and his outburst in court in which he insisted he had been part of a conspiracy, it was open season for conspiracy theories of various kinds. Conspiracy theorists, who never accepted the conclusion that a ‘lone assassin’ killed JFK, refused to accept the official version by the FBI and Memphis authorities. The authorities believed the evidence which had been presented at Ray’s trial (actually a ‘non-trial, as Ray pleaded guilty and accepted a 99 year prison sentence to avoid execution) proved Ray’s guilt, and they found no evidence to indicate that Ray had been part of a conspiracy.


Over the years many conspiracy theorists believed, and tried to prove, that Ray had not fired the shot that killed King  but had been a ‘patsy’ who had been used as a  scapegoat for the murder. Following Ray’s guilty plea there was a  feeling that the American people had been robbed of a proper trial in which all issues surrounding the tragedy had been thoroughly examined. Furthermore, the fact that no-one had actually seen Ray shoot King was a problem, and some witnesses were not consistent in their stories. The circumstantial and ballistics evidence provided opportunities for Ray’s defenders to claim that there was ‘reasonable doubt’ as to the alleged assassin’s guilt and enough unanswered questions existed with which conspiracy theorists could run roughshod through the prosecution’s case.


In 1969 a private group of conspiracy theorists and authors, ‘The Committee To Investigate Assassinations’ claimed to have eyewitness sightings of Ray with a man who could have been ‘Raoul, the shadowy figure Ray had told author William Bradford Huie about in the period prior to his trial. Ray alleged that Raoul had recruited him for a murder plot against King. The committee included JFK conspiracy advocate Mark Lane.In spite of the prosecutions ‘evidence’, which included  an alcoholic who identified Ray, a single fingerprint on the alleged weapon, the contradictory ballistics evidence, the sightings of two ‘getaway’ cars and a poor explanation as to how Ray financed his time on the run, the committee failed to prove Ray was innocent. And from the start the Committee had African-American organizations, including the NAACP, on their side. These groups suspected that the government may have had a hand in eliminating an African-American leader who had challenged the state. Others believed an institutionally-racist government had not done all it could to find the real killers.


As the 1970’s progressed the conspiracy theories became accepted by many Americans especially after Senate enquiries into the activities of the FBI disclosed that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had carried out a vendetta against King during the 1960s.The many discrepancies, anomalies, contradictory witness statements and rumors that others had been involved in the crime gave sufficient reason to reinvestigate the case. Five years after my visit to Brushy Mountain Penitentiary the United States House of Representatives initiated a Congressional investigation (HSCA) into the assassination of Dr. King and concluded, in 1979, that James Earl Ray had been the assassin but there was likelihood that he had been part of a conspiracy. However, Justice Department officials, responding to the HSCA’s investigation, could find no solid evidence with which to charge any suspects. Two suspects who were named, wealthy businessmen who were racially inspired to offer a ‘bounty’ on King’s head, had died in the 1970s.


This conclusion by a government body did not prevent conspiracy theorists from criticizing the HSCA report, calling it biased and filled with errors, depending too much on the word of government agencies like the FBI and CIA. Authors Philip Melanson, Dick Gregory, Mark Lane, Michael Newton and others insisted that the evidence in the case did not prove Ray’s guilt. Most conspiracy writers insisted that Ray had been set up to take the fall and the plot had been organized by the FBI/CIA/Military/Mafia or any combination of these groups. Some authors went so far as to accuse President Johnson of complicity in the crime.


Throughout the 1990s Internet websites continued to promote the conspiracy theories  successfully persuading a new generation of Americans that James Earl Ray was innocent. In 1992 Ray published his book “Who Killed Martin Luther King? - The True Story By The Alleged Assassin” with a forward by African-American Civil Rights leader, and former presidential candidate, Jesse Jackson. Jackson wrote: “I have never accepted the ‘one crazy man’ theory of political assassinations. I certainly do not accept such a theory with regard to James Earl Ray and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I have always believed that there was a conspiracy involved in Dr. King’s assassination. I have always believed that the government was part of a conspiracy, either directly or indirectly, to assassinate him.”


In the early 1990s Memphis prosecutors said that the conspiracy controversy seemed to be dying down, until 1993 when British and American television companies broadcast the made-for-TV mock trial that found Ray not guilty. That, said the prosecutors, brought conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork. Then Lloyd Jowers, the owner of ‘Jim’s Grill’, the cafe situated below Ray’s rooming house behind the Lorraine motel, claimed he was paid 100,000 dollars to hire an assassin - and the man hired was not Ray. In 1995 Ray’s London-based attorney, William Pepper published his book  ‘Orders To Kill’  attempting to ‘prove’ that Ray was innocent. The order to kill King, wrote Pepper, was issued by the head of organized crime in New Orleans to a Memphis fruit and vegetable dealer who got Jowers to Handle the payoff and murder weapon. A US Army sniper squad was in place to shoot King if the Mafia hit failed. Pepper alleged that the FBI, CIA, the media, Army Intelligence and state and city officials helped cover up the assassination.


In the mid to late 1990s  a number of events helped to keep the King assassination in the public eye. In 1997 ballistics tests on the rifle used in the shooting proved inconclusive. And, in the same year, the youngest son of Martin Luther King sat face to face with James Earl Ray to listen to Ray’s explanation of what happened to his father. With the blessings of King’s widow Coretta Scott King and the other King children, Dexter King shook James Earl Ray’s hand and professed belief in his innocence. “I just want to ask you for the record”, Dexter King said, “Did you kill my father?’ ‘No, I didn’t, no’, replied Ray in a quavering voice. Then Ray added, ‘But, like I say, sometimes these questions are difficult to answer....sometimes you have to make your own evaluation and maybe come to the conclusion. I think that could be done today, but not 30 years ago...’. Dexter King declared, ‘As awkward as it may seem, I believe you, and my family believes you...  and we will do everything in our power to see you prevail.’


After the two men had spoken before cameras and microphones for about 20 minutes the room was cleared and they spoke privately. Dexter King later also made the stunning claim that Pepper had been correct in claiming the federal government had plotted his father’s slaying to silence the Civil Rights leader’s opposition to the Vietnam War. Dexter King also told ABC TV interviewer Forrest Sawyer that President Johnson was part of the plot.

Insisting on Ray’s innocence, the King family stated that the accused assassin should be given the full-fledged trial he never had. Their support for King was greeted with by incredulity. King biographer David Garrow called Dexter King’s support of Ray ‘egregious and embarrassing’. Joseph E. Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a long-time friend of Martin Luther King, called the son’s crusade ‘unfathomable’.


1998, the 30th anniversary of King’s death, proved to be a watershed in the continuing controversy. Gerald Posner, who had successfully addressed the issue of the Kennedy assassination and whose book on the subject was widely acclaimed, published ‘Killing the Dream’, his investigation into the circumstances surrounding the King assassination. Posner’s book, although acclaimed by the media in general, was vociferously criticized by conspiracy theorists on internet websites. Neutral observers claimed that, whilst Posner had successfully debunked many myths, he had not closed the case.

Posner’s anti-conspiracy claims were given a boost by the 1998 release of the Memphis District-Attorney’s report of the state’s re-investigation of the case which concluded there was no evidence that anyone other than James Earl Ray committed the crime. Unfortunately the report was a double-sided sword as it was revealed that the investigation did not go into conspiracy theories alleging involvement by the government and organized crime; a revelation which guaranteed rejection by conspiracy theorists. To further obscure the true facts of the case William Pepper re-published his book ‘Orders To Kill’ .Pepper’s appearances on television and a spate of newspaper interviews with the author helped to promote his outrageous claims of a vast network of conspirators collaborating with President Johnson to kill King.


The greatest boost to the legitimacy of the King conspiracy theories came in the summer of 1998 when the King family met with President Clinton and persuaded him to reopen the investigation. However, the Attorney General, Janet Reno, said its new enquiry would be much narrower than the King family had hoped. Reno said she had directed her department to review allegations by former FBI agent, Donald Wilson that a note had been found proving the existence of the mysterious ‘Raoul’ and  the claim by a Memphis restaurant owner Lloyd Jowers  which suggested that Ray was part of a larger conspiracy. ‘We hope this review will provide answers to new questions that have been raised,’ said Reno, ‘....the evidence gathered during the enquiry will be followed wherever it may lead.’ Coretta Scott King said it was ‘a first step toward revealing the truth’.


During the period when the Justice Department had been investigating the new allegations of conspiracy the King family sued Loyd Jowers in a wrongful death lawsuit. The fact that Jowers had confessed to the killing on national television bolstered their case. In a civil trial the suit is brought by an individual plaintiff or group of plaintiffs instead of the state. The plaintiffs must merely show ‘a preponderance of evidence’ against the defendant, rather than prove ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that a crime was committed, as in a criminal trial.


The King v. Jowers case came to trial in 1999 and a jury decision came in December of that year. The Kings had sought unspecified damages and were awarded a token $100.They had merely wanted the verdict to lend support to their call for a fresh investigation. The defendant’s lawyer, Lewis Garrison, agreed with the plaintiffs and said that there had been a conspiracy involving the US Government, the Memphis police and the State of Tennessee. Jowers had refused to name the person he believed had murdered King and insisted it was not Ray. He told of how the fatal shot had been fired from the bushes behind his restaurant and that the killer handed him the rifle moments after the assassination. He said he gave the weapon to an unidentified conspirator the next day.


During the trial Ray’s lawyer William Pepper repeated the claims he had made in his book  - the order to kill King was issued by the head of organized crime in New Orleans to a Memphis ‘produce dealer’ who got Jowers to handle the murder weapon while an Army sniper team was in place to shoot King if the Mafia hit failed. Pepper called witnesses who claimed that King’s police protection was pulled back moments before the shooting, that Army agents had him under surveillance and that a police officer who was at King’s side after he was shot later went to work for the CIA. Jowers’ lawyer told the jury that while they could reasonably conclude King was the victim of a conspiracy, his client’s role was minor at best.


The 73-year old Jowers, who had never repeated his 1993 claim but had never recanted it either, was ill for much of the trial and did not testify. The jury, which consisted of 6 black and six white jurors took three hours to reach their verdict of conspiracy involving Jowers. This was hardly surprising, considering that Jowers’ lawyer never disputed most of the evidence presented by the King lawyers. As the jury heard no evidence to rebut the conspiracy theory, it was inevitable they would return a verdict favorable to Pepper and the King family. However, the disturbing nature of the Jowers trial was enhanced when Walter Fauntroy, who had been a member of the US Congressional investigation in the 1970s, said the HSCA enquiry failed to adequately pursue the idea of conspiracy.


The controversy surrounding the assassination of Martin Luther King continued into the new millennium when the June 2000 Justice Department issued its report on the King slaying .The report stated that the recent allegations concerning conspiracy were baseless.  Conspiracy advocates responded accordingly and reiterated their demand for a full-fledged commission, independent of government, to investigate the assassination. Coretta Scott King, who believes the government had known at least since 1969 that Ray did not act alone, repeated her call for a national  commission similar to South Africa’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ to investigate the assassination. This type of commission, she said, would provide immunity and protection for anyone who came forward with information. Coretta King also believed that if Ray had been retried it would have proved that he was not even the gunman.


The nation now had two strong, diametrically-opposed versions of the assassination. And with the death of James Earl Ray from liver failure in April 1998, it became clear that the assassination controversy would continue.